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Confidence, mental toughness and competitiveness

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In today's blog entry, head coach Yvette Healy writes about the team's success at the Wolf Pack Softball Classic and what is key for UW's top performers.

It's sunny and 78 in Madison today, as we prepare for our last spring trip. We're thrilled to practice outside on the dirt this early in the spring.

What a great weekend for Badger softball in Reno. The team went 4-1 in Nevada, batting .394. We're 10-7 overall right now, which puts us 4th in the Big Ten with our winning percentage. A few of our student-athletes are really playing well, including many of our Midwest kids.

Former New Trier (Ill.) standout Molly Spence was named Big Ten Player of the Week after batting .529 with an OPS of 1.873. Molly reached base in each game of the weekend and had three multi-hit games, including two, three-hit games. She belted four home runs on the weekend, including two in the final game against Nevada, finishing with 10 RBI.

Freshman Maria Van Abel, from Kaukauna, Wis., is leading the Big Ten in hitting, with a .459 batting average.  She's done a great job at the top of the lineup, setting the table for our big hitters. Maggie Strange, our junior catcher from Gallatin, Mo., is leading the Big Ten in throwing out runners and allowing the least number of steals against.

The key for our top performers is definitely confidence, mental toughness and competitiveness. Each of our standout athletes has the right temperament. They understand that success is a process, and the only way to achieve small victories is continued hard work, a great attitude and the overwhelming desire to succeed. Injuries, setbacks and obstacles don't faze the best student-athletes. They just continue to work hard, developing a plan for improvement each day. They refuse to fail, and emotionally invest in the success of this year's team and the Badger softball program.

We leave Thursday for Santa Barbara, Calif. We'll have five games on the road, including a big match-up on Sunday against nationally-ranked Oklahoma State. OSU returns most of their squad from last year's team that reached the 2011 Women's College World Series. They just pitched a no-hitter against Nebraska who was ranked earlier this year too. We've had great games against several ranked teams this spring, and it's time to get over the hump. This game is a great opportunity to steal a key win for our young squad.

We've seen some weekends of good pitching early this spring, and strong offense lately. We're looking forward to putting it all together this weekend, building some excitement and energy as we open up Big Ten play next weekend at Iowa.

Stepping outside of your comfort zone and taking risks

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In today's blog entry, head coach Yvette Healy writes about stepping outside of your comfort zone to become great.

After three weekends on the road, we're 6-6, after going 2-1 on the weekend, posting wins over UConn and Charleston Southern, and a loss to Kansas who was on a 14-game winning streak. Our last game of the weekend was rained out. We'll travel west the next two weekends, flying to Nevada and California.

With the rain delays this weekend, we had time for a good team chalk-talk on the road. The focus for this week is ownership, accountability and urgency. As a staff, we're okay with where we're at. The team is working hard and getting better every day. We're keeping our head above water, winning some games and playing fine. The hard message for our team is that none of us play sports aspiring towards mediocrity. No one shows up to the field looking to split. We work hard and prepare in order to separate ourselves from our peers, not to be status quo.

So, while we're not in the dumps, and not getting throttled by other teams, we're very average. We're showing up to the field, putting in the work and playing okay. The sense of urgency for all of us comes from getting over the mediocre hump. Wisconsin softball is about building something extraordinary. It's about making great plays on defense that inspire people; it's about dominating from the mound, and having an electric offense. Badger softball at its best is gritty, tenacious, fiery and exciting. We know that as you build and grow a program, you can't be afraid to step outside your comfort zone, take risks and do something special. Razzle Dazzle.

Our staff is excited to see the team catch fire soon. We know this group has the ability to get things clicking on all cylinders, creating some energy, excitement and momentum. We haven't found our groove yet, which is fine. No one wants to peak in February. But, March is the time to make great strides. Mentally tough teams take the lessons they learn early in the season, they make the critical adjustments, stick with the game plan and start playing quality softball.

The biggest jump we all face in life is the move from good to great. Coach Schneider has spoken to the team many times about what it takes to be a great program; the extra effort, the attitude, the approach and swagger. We've challenged our team to work even harder, do extra, and emotionally invest in the Badger softball family. We were so proud to hear that the team ran its own captain's practice Sunday night after a long weekend of travel. We're seeing leadership start to bud.   

Great opportunities within reach for Badgers

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In today's blog entry, head coach Yvette Healy writes about adversity and opportunity.

Adversity, what a great word for sports, what a great lesson for life. Wisconsin softball is 4-5 right now.  It's a good 4-5. We've played a great schedule, with our three of our five losses to top 25 teams, and the other two losses to Arkansas and Maryland who are in the top 30/receiving votes.

The first few weekends always test your mental toughness. Everyone enters the season with high hopes and dreams of the type of impact player they could be. Everyone has their sights set on making huge strides as a program, getting out of the gates fast and knocking off a few ranked teams. Reality can be humbling. When things don't go as you'd planned, it can either motivate or hold your back.

For Badger softball, this week is about focus and confidence. When you face ranked teams, and you play in tough, tight games that you almost win, it breaks your heart. Adversity tests your character, placing you in pressure situations, forcing you to act, react, and respond during and after competition. As a growing team that's still trying to figure out who we are, and how to win big games, it's the response that matters most. What happens after the game; what do you do every day afterwards to improve? As a coaching staff, we're so pleased that our team has the opportunity to play in tight games against great pitchers early in the season. It builds your database, and makes you a smarter, tougher team.

As a staff, we work hard to prepare our team to compete. We've challenged them mentally and physically throughout the fall and winter. We've built up their softball IQ and worked on mental training. Yet there is no substitute for the real feelings that arise when each players battles through the ups and downs of the season. It is the games that cause that gut reaction, the nerves, the thrills and hearth-break. There's no way to simulate that emotional rush. What we cannot account for as coaches is each individual's mental toughness, and their ability to deal with adversity and challenges. Great players always bounce back.

I think our team is in the perfect position to make a run, and go on a role these next 14 games. We're prepared, we've been tested; we're learning and getting better each and every game. Our success over the next three weekends will be a direct result of how mentally tough our team is. If the challenges of the past two weekends bring us down, and hold us back, it could get ugly. If the adversity causes divisiveness internally, we could be in trouble. Yet if we can pull confidence and trust from what we've learned in playing tough ranked teams, we could surprise some people.

I'm excited to see our team's character and leadership develop. This weekend could be a great turning point for the Badgers. We'll see if we have the leadership and experience to make the jump. I would love to see the team pull together, get excited, and string together some wins. It all comes down to temperament. These are the moments in the season, and in our student-athletes careers, when the greatest opportunity is right within reach.

Kicking off the season

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softball_BLOG.jpgIn today's blog entry, head coach Yvette Healy writes about opening weekend and the team's focus.

It was great to kick-off the 2012 softball season in Tampa, Fla. The University of South Florida hosted a nice tournament with Arkansas, Drake and Georgia Southern. I'm proud of our team for winning our opening game, and coming home 2-2.

Whitney Massey led the offense, getting on base and driving in runs. Redshirt sophomore Molly Spence provided a few sparks, driving in runs in three separate games. Our pitchers were impressive; averaging only five hits a game while keeping us in every contest. Junior Meghan McIntosh and sophomore Cassandra Darrah each earned their first wins of the season. Defensively, Shannel Blackshear and Stephanie Peace did a nice job holding down the left side of the infield their first weekend on the dirt.

We have a short turnaround this week, returning to Florida to face Maryland, Florida State, Southern Illinois and St. John's in Orlando Feb. 24-26. Maryland and Florida State are both ranked in the top 30 right now, which is exciting.

Our focus last weekend was pulling activities from the book, "10-Minute Toughness" by Jason Selk. We had our team create "Identity Statements" to help them decide who they want to be and how they want to live. Dr. Maxwell Maltz's "Psycho Cybernetics" argues that you will act like the sort of person you conceive yourself to be. I think this positive self-talk exercise helped our athletes stay composed and confident.  

Lucas at Large: Road a challenging one for Healy and her Badgers

SB_120219_Healy_Yvette.jpegThe schedule is daunting: six road weekends and 26 games before the home opener.

"Fatigue is definitely something you have to consider,'' said second-year Wisconsin softball coach Yvette Healy. "Our season is long, it's a marathon.

"It's important to play well every game, but it's more about improvement --  seeing where you match up (early in the season) -- and working on the game plan to get better.''

After winning 30 games last season -- a victory total that has been reached only five previous times in school history -- the expectations are higher than normal for the Badgers, who began their daunting road stretch this weekend at South Florida's tournament in Tampa.

Sustaining that success is the challenge for Healy, who has already taken some positive strides in changing the culture of the program. By her own admission, she knows her work has just begun.

"We did create some momentum last season,'' she said. "But the fact that we had so many come-from-behind wins, half of our victories, you know that those could easily go the other direction.

"It's really going to be a challenging year for the team and our staff. But we're going into it with our eyes wide open. It's not going to be simple to walk in and replicate what we did last year.''

The Badgers, who were 30-23 overall and 9-11 in the Big Ten, return eight starters and all three pitchers. But they must replace center fielder Jennifer Krueger; a difference-maker on the base paths.

Citing the vagaries of her sport, Healy said, "It's such a fickle game. It's so much about getting the right hop here or there. We were fortunate last year, but we created some of that magic, too.''

At the moment, injuries are an issue. "We've got more than last year at this time,'' she said.

Karla Powell, Molly Spence, Mary Massei and Cassandra Darrah are four key pieces to the puzzle, and each has been forced to overcome physical hurdles leading up to the spring competition.

Given the All-Big Ten value in a majority of the cases, Healy won't rush anyone. "This first weekend,'' she said, "is about managing to keep our talent healthy and easing them back in, too.''

Nonetheless, there's an anticipation level with the opening games.

"Everybody wants to see how you match up,'' Healy agreed. "It's a good litmus test to let you know what else you need to work on. The first weekend doesn't make or break you.

"But it sets the tone for realizing how good you can be, or how much harder you have to work.''

Much of the out-of-season work has been centered on conditioning.  Healy pointed out that strength coach Stephanie Housh "makes it sport-specific'' and has "done a phenomenal job.''

"We've gotten a little creative on the coaching end, too,'' Healy went on. "We've tried not to have as much down time that you typically see in a baseball game or a softball practice.''
To the extent, she said, where "they are swinging and not breaking a sweat.''

That creativity has resulted in the use of jump ropes and medicine balls. "We're making our team get physically drained,'' she said, "in addition to having to perform those high-level hitting skills.''

A year of maturity should benefit the returning players. "We didn't add a ton to the program,'' said Healy, who also retained her staff. "We brought in just one recruited player this season.''

That has piqued her interest to see how it all comes together. Healy singled out sophomore shortstop Stephanie Peace for having the potential and the "ability to be a marquee player.''

Meghan McIntosh will anchor the pitching staff. "She has worked hard in the off-season, gotten healthy and shown leadership,'' Healy said. "It'll be interesting to see if you can put it all together.''

What does Healy want to see out of her team by the end of the month?

"We'll want to see our pitchers keeping us in games; our pitchers having command,'' she said. "Giving us a chance to win every single game is a really big thing.

"From an offensive standpoint, I think we have a lot of balance and I'm hoping we take a good aggressive approach -- I want to see our speed and power come together.

"I hope we can come out of the gate really strong and create some energy. The first couple of weeks, I want to show how excited we are to get out of the cold and get on the dirt (the diamond).

"I want to start setting the tone for the season.''

Team leadership and the privilege of competition

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In today's blog entry, head coach Yvette Healy writes about the first two weeks of practice and what a privilege competition is.

Winter Practice: Week 1

The Badger softball team spent a lot of time in 2011 listening to chalk-talks and inspiring speeches from great coaches and leaders on campus. We kicked off our 2012 winter practice season last week with a few visitors willing to share words of wisdom to help break up our two-a-day workouts. Major Shannon Hellenbrand spoke to our group about leadership, before our team got to participate in a mini boot camp. The amazing thing about Shannon is that she was young, friendly and bubbly. She shared her experiences of leading two tours to Iraq, managing units comprised primarily men, many of them older than her. She led a group of engineers and oversaw a detention camp. Her leadership seemed to be centered on caring for her coworkers. By establishing relationships with the people she commanded, she got more from her employees and created a better environment. We were inspired to meet someone so young who has dedicated her life to serving her country as a leader.


Later in the week Lindsey Smith from Athletes in Action spoke to the team about opportunities at Wisconsin for service, community outreach and spiritual growth. It's amazing how many resources are available to our student-athletes at Wisconsin. There are so many groups, organizations and professionals who are dedicated to helping our student-athletes reach their potential on the field, in the classroom and in life. One of my favorite quotes that you can find on a lot of the Athletes in Action materials is from Nelson Mandela, "Sport has the power to change the world. It has the power to inspire in a way that little else does. It speaks to youth in a language they understand. Sport can create hope where once there was despair. It is more powerful than governments in breaking down barriers. It laughs in the face of discrimination."

Winter Practice: Week 2

This week's chalk talk was one of the most inspiring for me, because it featured two of our own student-athletes who wanted to share insights into leadership and mental toughness that they learned over break. Senior Karla Powell led the way by reading a book, "Strengths-Based Leadership", by Tom Rath and Barry Conchie. While the book focused on leadership in corporate America, Karla shared lessons that translated into sports. It's rewarding to hear our team echo some of the life-lessons that our staff is working to emphasize.

The two lessons that Karla talked about, which resonated with me, had to do with surrounding yourself with good people, and leading from a strength-based perspective. The book emphasized the need to surround yourself with people who are positive influences. I think that's one of the most important things we can do in life; seek out individuals that inspire us, who build us up, who challenge us and make us better people. There are so many negative influences in this world, why not choose to be around people with similar values and goals, who care for others and do things the right way. My mom always told my sister and me to surround ourselves with good people when we were growing up. That lesson has helped so much in choosing the right college, dating nice guys, finding true friends and working for amazing bosses.

The other message I liked from Karla's talk said that leaders focus on their strengths and the strengths of their organization and employees. As coaches there are so many times that we dwell on what's wrong. It's so easy to see where our players fall short and how deficient our team is. Great leaders have the unique ability to see what people do right, and accentuate the positive. Sports and life can be a long, difficult journey. There are so many challenges and pitfalls along the way. To inspire our athletes, our teams and ourselves to survive the marathon, and stay motivated and positive, we must highlight the good. If athletes don't feel good, and worthy and special, they'll never have the energy or tenacity to chip away at their weaknesses. It's a tough world out there. If we lead from a strength-based perspective, our athletes will feel the confidence and energy they need, to take on new challenges in sport and life.

Sophomore Stephanie Peace then spoke to the team about a 30 day challenge she took on. She read two, 14 day workbooks on mental training. Each day there were stories and activities to read and complete. These workbooks offer a great, tangible plan for improving mental toughness, and teaching relaxation. If our staff had made the team complete these workbooks, I'm not sure how much they would have gotten out of them. I love having one of our young leaders share some of the extra work she is doing and to inspire her peers to do the same. What a powerful way to lead by example. Everyone wanted to try these workbooks out after hearing Steph's talk.

Accountability is an amazing thing among athletes. We can all take on new challenges, or try to overcome a weakness. Yet when you stand in front of your team, commit to being more positive under pressure and in control when the going gets tough, you really become accountable for your actions. True change happens when you put yourself out there and become vulnerable in front of your teammates, committing to a goal in public.

My favorite lesson from Steph's reading on mental toughness states that "Pressure is a Privilege." How true. If you are under pressure at work, in life, or on the field, you must have an amazing opportunity in front of you. Sure, you could fail, but you're in the fight, you've stood up, put yourself out there, accepted the challenge and joined the dance. You might fail, but you have the opportunity to fail brilliantly. Not many people have the privilege of experiencing pressure. If you're feeling pressure you must have made the team, and you are probably in the game! What a privilege to compete. bootcamp2BLOG.jpg

Badgers kick off 2012 season

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UWBadgers.com sat down with head coach Yvette Healy to discuss the first week of practice. The Badgers kicked off the season on Jan. 17 and play in their first game Feb. 17.

How did the first week of practice go?

"The first week back looked good. We spent a lot of the time making sure physically we are in great shape. Practice is a lot more creative than usual. A lot more running, jumping, diving, medi balls, jump ropes, ladders and juggling. Fun stuff like that. We are really working on some differential learning with the team, trying to get them active besides just softball skills.

Were there any surprises the first week?

"Molly Spence had been hurt and she was out last year. Even with being in some pain and being out, she hits the ball a ton. It is really fun as a staff to see her hit live and hit in scrimmages. She is a tremendous athlete and she is someone you can't help but notice when you are watching practice."

You worked on fitness the first week, what does the second week include?

"We are getting into a little more philosophy stuff. We are working a lot on our swings. I think we have a lot of potential to hit home runs and attack that record. Coach Schneider has been doing a lot of the science behind it and working with our team on torque and their bat positioning, creating velocity and increasing bat speed. (There has been) a lot of strength stuff, vision training and then just your basic, grounders, fly balls and breaking down the skill and re-teaching it. I think you spend the second week tearing apart your fundamentals, making sure you are all on the same page and re-teaching. It is a great week going into a weekend of camp to have our team reviewing all of those fundamentals."


What are your goals for the next two and a half weeks of practice?

"Every week we try to advance what we are doing and just make sure we are getting better from a pitching, fielding, defensive and hitting stand point, each aspect of the game. We are ramping it up to feel more like game situations, but we were careful not to jump right in and just go from 0 to 60 right away. Really the first weeks are about getting your fundamentals down and being in great shape and having the team work really hard and get in extra work.

"The next couple weeks will really start to feel like game mode, where every drill feels more a little more rushed, a little more sense of urgency, a little more game like.


Three words for team culture

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In today's blog entry, head coach Yvette Healy writes about three words that represent the core principles of Wisconsin softball.

Our softball staff was in Las Vegas last week at the NFCA National Convention listening to the top speakers and presenters in our sport while working on legislation for softball. One of the best speakers was Eric Kapitulik. He is a U.S. Marine Corps officer with a great background in leadership. He shared a lot of insight in dealing with adversity in the team setting.

My favorite message from Eric was simple, can you, your staff and team all agree on the three core principles of what it means to be one of the women of Wisconsin softball? What three words would you use to describe what it means to be a Badger? What goals, values and standards do we live in our program? The three words that I would use are: tenacious, composed and family. The women of Wisconsin softball are tenacious, composed and family. Those three words are simple, yet powerful.

Obviously in a high level, Division 1 program, you've got to be competitive. But tenacity takes competitiveness to a whole different level. The single biggest attribute our staff looks for in young recruits is their temperament. We want kids that love softball, and love to compete.  Some people just naturally love the thrill of working hard, developing their game and winning. Yet even more powerful than just competiveness is tenacity. Those who refuse to be stifled by obstacles become champions. I've always been drawn to great underdog stories. Talent truly is overrated. Those athletes that I have been most proud of in my coaching and playing experience are the ones with the most fight. Those that continue to battle, scrap and win, even when they face setbacks, have tenacity. When you find someone who refuses to lose at all she does, she will over-achieve in all aspects of her life.

Composure is actually my favorite compliment to pay. It goes beyond being calm and poised in the face of adversity. Young women who are composed have this amazing aura of confidence. They have swagger. They trust and believe in their ability and preparation. Composure only comes to those who know they will achieve and overcome. They have experienced tribulations before, and found a way to pull themselves up and rise above the challenge. Composed people are usually selfless, more focused on solving problems than complaining about the situation. When you can find athletes with great composure, they are usually those who worked hardest and feel confident in how they prepared. They know that failure is only temporary and success is a process.

Finally, the women of Wisconsin softball are family. These words have never seemed more meaningful to me than now, as the mother of a three-year-old. Although the word family means different things to different people, we can all agree that family is forever. At its core, family is about selflessness.  Family members have your best interest in mind, sacrificing to make others' lives better than their own. Family is about unconditional love, about putting others' happiness before your own. Family is about having relationships that matter, being there for each other through the good and bad and truly connecting with someone.  We talk a lot about being a great teammate and a great person in the Wisconsin softball family. Our coaches are here because they are good people that care about the young women in our program and love to teach.

I am proud to work with the women of Wisconsin softball every day.

The power of words

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In today's blog entry, head coach Yvette Healy writes about the power of words and the impact they can have on a team.

With a short week of classes, the Badger softball team is lifting and conditioning hard, before Thanksgiving break. There has been a lot of excitement in our offices today, as we celebrate our men's cross country's fifth national championship! They just won the NCAA Cross Country Championship last night. It's been fun to see the trophy and hear stories about the police escort the Badger bus received driving back through Madison last night. We have our final home football game on Saturday, as the Badgers battle for a spot in the new Big Ten Championship title game.

Our team meeting this week is focusing on the power of what we say as teammates. This is such an important message this time of year. As coaches, it's hard not to see our team every day. Our athletes are spending a lot of time studying and working with tutors as we enter the last few weeks of class.

We're giving the team a few quotes from the book, "The Four Agreements," by Don Miguel Ruiz. The book shares ideas on how to be a better person, and teammate. The first agreement is, "Be impeccable with your word". Ruiz states, "Speak with integrity. Say only what you mean. Avoid using the word to speak against yourself or to gossip about others. Use the power of your word in the direction of truth and love."

It's amazing how powerful all of our words can be. What we say as coaches and athletes can inspire, or attack. Our words can motivate, or they can cause people to shut down. All of us have the ability to help create a positive, productive, successful environment within our program. We can create drama, or minimize it with words we choose to use.

In the "Four Agreements", Ruiz goes on to say, "You can measure the impeccability of your word by your level of self-love. How much you love yourself and how you feel about yourself are directly proportionate to the quality and integrity of your word. When you are impeccable with your word, you feel good; you feel happy and at peace."

Our goal in the Wisconsin softball family, is to create a competitive environment where the student-athletes feel challenged, supported and respected. We want our athletes to be successful students and people. Hopefully we all take a moment this holiday season to reflect on how lucky and fortunate we are. Our goal is to use our words to make this softball team, athletics department and university a better, happier, more successful and productive place.

Badger Blog: Fall festivities

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In today's blog entry, head coach Yvette Healy writes about celebrating the fall season in Madison.

What a beautiful fall in Madison. This fall has been filled with pumpkins, football and falling leaves. The leaves are all changing colors, with red, orange and yellow trees everywhere on campus. We've had beautiful weather with a few sunny 60 and 70 degree days over the past few weeks. People are jogging along the lake and out playing with their dogs everywhere you look. Our campus looks like fall postcard right now with the sun shining on the lakes and the leaves changing colors all around us.

The softball team celebrated Halloween with a costume contest, dinner and pumpkin carving party at my house last week. My three year old daughter Grace was a fairy princess with big purple wings and a butterfly mask. Grace has prayed for the "Badger softball girls" every night since the party. Her favorite costumes were the Bee Catcher and the Nerds. Our team gatherings make me feel so fortunate as a wife, mom and coach. There are many times when the travel and rigors of the job make it tough to balance. Yet, when my husband Shawn and I have the team, coaches and staff over to our house, and we see Grace playing with the student-athletes -- looking up to them as role models -- everything seems to fit together perfectly.

We had a fun two-hand touch football game with our staff and the team at the field last week too. It was a great workout and non-stop laughs. We have some hilarious personalities on our team. I really enjoyed mixing in and playing too. Coach Schneider played football in college, so his team had a bit of an advantage, but we still finished in a tie. This is the second year that we've ended the fall with flag football and I think this tradition will stick.